Up in arms - GulfToday

Up in arms

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The new legislation is in response to the massacre of hapless Muslims outside two mosques in March by a white extremist. File/ AFP

Four months after the March massacre of 51 Muslim men, women and children in two mosques in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, gun owners have begun exchanging military-style semi-automatic weapons for money. In the first of 250 planned buy-back events across the country, 169 Christchurch gun owners were paid a total of $288,000 to turn in banned weaponry. New semi-automatic rifles fetch a top price of $10,000, approximating market value. As there is no limit on how many guns can be handed over to the police, dealers and shooting ranges can be compensated for existing stocks. Community events are the preferred means for cashing-in weapons although the police will go directly to households and shops to collect guns if necessary.

In April, New Zealand’s parliament rushed through legislation banning assault weapons after Brendon Tarrant, a 28-year old Australian white extremist gunned down the hapless Muslims. He used five weapons in his attack. The government, headed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, has appropriated $100-200 million to buy these weapons from legal owners. There are 14,300 registered semi-automatics affected by the law and an unknown number of unregistered weapons of this type. Some 760,000 rifles and 380,000 shotguns are legal.

Many owners are not pleased with the compensation they receive although they are awarded between 25 and 95 per cent of the pre-tax purchase price of the guns, depending on their condition. Some complain that they have to rely on police assessments of the value of the weapons and that they are not reimbursed for taxes, which are high, or parts and ammunition.

Owners of affected arms have until December to hand them over under an amnesty but will be prosecuted when it has expired and could be sentenced to five years in prison if they hold onto banned weapons. Legal weapons can also be relinquished but without payment. Police destroy weapons they receive.

While the amnesty also covers owners of guns without valid licenses, they will not be compensated for illegal arms surrendered. The police say they will crack down on owners of such guns if they do not hand in their weapons before the amnesty ends.

The public favours this policy. Before the law was tabled, nearly 70,000 people signed a petition calling for gun control. One proponent reacted to the Christchurch shootings by calling for a ban on all military-style semi-automatics and demanding gun registration: “cars need registration. Drivers need licenses...why should guns be any different? What legitimate uses do (military-style semi-automatics) have in civilian hands?“ This is precisely the question that needed to be asked.

Some 11,100 opponents of reform also presented a petition defending ownership of semi-automatics. They argued that the government was rushing the ban through parliament in a matter of weeks without consulting the public. They were correct but the authorities sought to maximise the emotional and political impact of the Christchurch killings to enact legislation which had previously been blocked by gun owners, lobbies, and dealers. The anti-ban petition was promoted by Gun City, one of the country’s largest dealerships. The fact that the Christchurch gunman bought four of his weapons from the firm should have made its management cautious about opposing the ban.

Among critics of the ban are the native New Zealand Maori Mongrel Mob and Polynesian Black Power movement which offered to provide post-shooting security to the Christchurch mosques. Police claim a large percentage of gang members have been charged with firearm offenses. Their leaders contend they use the guns to hunt for food and defend their families from racist oppression. Owning guns for self-defence in New Zealand is illegal. Farmers also argue they use semi-automatic weapons for hunting.

While registration and licensing do not account for all firearms in New Zealand, 93 per cent of licensed owners are male. Consequently, there has been a misogynistic backlash against Ardern because she is a woman although she put forward “balanced” legislation which did not alienate the influential hunting community. When parliament voted on the bill, only one lawmaker out of 120 voted no. 

Nevertheless, opponents have launched a crowd-funding website to raise money to lobby against a further clampdown on guns. Some posted messages online claiming that they would suffer due to the Christchurch massacre and predicted that the sale of semi-automatics would rise dramatically. Some warned owners to bury their weapons before they are confiscated. Others echoed arguments against control adopted by the US National Rifle Association (NRA). In New Zealand, however, gun ownership is not a right, as it is construed in the US, but a privilege. Therefore, the government has the right to ban any and all guns and to demand owners hand over weapons.

Ardern responded to the Christchurch shooting in the same way Australian Prime Minister John Howard did after a mass shooting in Port Arthur on April 28th, 1996. Armed with an AR-10 assault rifle, Martin Bryant, then 25, killed 35 people in a rampage. The majority of victims were at a former colonial prison which is now a historic site attracting local and foreign tourists. Mentally disturbed Bryant believed he was avenging his father who felt he had been cheated out of a business opportunity by a competitor. Premier Howard imposed strict gun control laws in Australia, restricting the ownership of semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and pump action shotguns and introduced licensing.

Australians associated the Port Arthur massacre with the March 14th, 1996, mass shooting with multiple handguns of 16 children and their teacher at a school at Dunblane, Scotland. This incident remains the deadliest shooting in British history. The government’s reaction was to ban handguns of most types, except historic models and sporting handguns. It is significant that US Christian evangelicals and the NRA attempted to intervene on behalf of gun owners.

Thanks to the NRA, there is a dramatic contrast between the responses to massacres by gunmen in Britain, Australia and in New Zealand. Due to its iron grip on the US Congress there is little regulation of any kind of weaponry in the country where mass shootings of more than four people occur all too frequently. So far this year, there have been 196 and 968 victims. In 2016, the NRA, which has an annual budget of $250 million, spent $50 million on political advocacy, including $30 million to boost Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency.

($1= Dhs3.67)

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